As miracles go, the one narrated in 2 Kings 6:1–7 might seem rather banal. An anonymous ‘son of the prophets’ has an unfortunate work incident. While felling trees for a building project, the head of his axe comes loose and lands in the river Jordan. Personal distress ensues but the crisis ends quickly. Elisha, the ‘man of God’, recovers the missing axe head.
This fourteenth-century manuscript illumination by Jan Boudolf could be accused of rendering the episode even more mundane by choosing to show a moment before anything has gone awry. The men chop away while the prophet teaches them. Both axe heads are still attached.
But the artist has added an additional detail—not in the biblical text—to ensure that we recognize the extraordinariness of what is underway. Three red angels, haloed in gold, have made a dramatic appearance in the upper half of the illumination. This detail links the scene with the more epic events that 2 Kings 6 is soon to unfold, when a veil will be lifted on a whole army of them.
The angels signal both the impending moment of crisis and its divine resolution. When we anticipate what is to come, the illumination is charged with dramatic tension. There are unseen beings and forces at work in the world. The universe is enchanted. A supernatural display of power will recover a lost axe head and thus restore the fortunes of an unnamed worker. A site of manual labour, no less than a battlefield of kings, can be the gathering place of angels.
This vignette can be seen as a humble testimony to the meticulous care of a God who feeds baby ravens (Job 38:41), quenches the thirst of wild donkeys (Psalm 104:11), perceives barely formed thoughts from far away (Psalm 139:2, 4), numbers the hairs of balding heads (Matthew 10:30), and recovers work tools for anonymous assistant prophets.
6 Now the sons of the prophets said to Eliʹsha, “See, the place where we dwell under your charge is too small for us. 2Let us go to the Jordan and each of us get there a log, and let us make a place for us to dwell there.” And he answered, “Go.” 3Then one of them said, “Be pleased to go with your servants.” And he answered, “I will go.” 4So he went with them. And when they came to the Jordan, they cut down trees. 5But as one was felling a log, his axe head fell into the water; and he cried out, “Alas, my master! It was borrowed.” 6Then the man of God said, “Where did it fall?” When he showed him the place, he cut off a stick, and threw it in there, and made the iron float. 7And he said, “Take it up.” So he reached out his hand and took it.
8 Once when the king of Syria was warring against Israel, he took counsel with his servants, saying, “At such and such a place shall be my camp.” 9But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, “Beware that you do not pass this place, for the Syrians are going down there.” 10And the king of Israel sent to the place of which the man of God told him. Thus he used to warn him, so that he saved himself there more than once or twice.
11 And the mind of the king of Syria was greatly troubled because of this thing; and he called his servants and said to them, “Will you not show me who of us is for the king of Israel?” 12And one of his servants said, “None, my lord, O king; but Eliʹsha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedchamber.” 13And he said, “Go and see where he is, that I may send and seize him.” It was told him, “Behold, he is in Dothan.” 14So he sent there horses and chariots and a great army; and they came by night, and surrounded the city.
15 When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was round about the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” 16He said, “Fear not, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 17Then Eliʹsha prayed, and said, “O Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Eliʹsha. 18And when the Syrians came down against him, Eliʹsha prayed to the Lord, and said, “Strike this people, I pray thee, with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness in accordance with the prayer of Eliʹsha. 19And Eliʹsha said to them, “This is not the way, and this is not the city; follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samarʹia.
20 As soon as they entered Samarʹia, Eliʹsha said, “O Lord, open the eyes of these men, that they may see.” So the Lord opened their eyes, and they saw; and lo, they were in the midst of Samarʹia. 21When the king of Israel saw them he said to Eliʹsha, “My father, shall I slay them? Shall I slay them?” 22He answered, “You shall not slay them. Would you slay those whom you have taken captive with your sword and with your bow? Set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master.” 23So he prepared for them a great feast; and when they had eaten and drunk, he sent them away, and they went to their master. And the Syrians came no more on raids into the land of Israel.